“It’s about One Moment–that moment you think you know where you stand; And in that one moment the things that you’re sure of slip from your hand…” Jason Robert Brown, “Songs For A New World”
Imagine yourself on the deck of a ship, sailing with Christopher Columbus in 1492, or in the drawing-room of a fretful woman whose son is off fighting the Revolutionary War in 1775—or even in a modern-day coffee shop reuniting with the love you thought you foolishly had lost forever. Such are the places and times audiences are transported to during “Songs For A New World”–the very first produced work from Jason Robert Brown (whose other successes include the scores for “Parade”, “The Last Five Years”, “The Bridges Of Madison County” and “Honeymoon In Vegas”.) Presently playing at “The Chromolume Theatre” in Los Angeles California, the production is once again in keeping with their fine tradition of presenting simple but impactful smaller-cast musicals, and was directed here by James Esposito, along with Assistant Director Lauren J. Peters; Musical Direction is by Daniel Yokomizo (who also presides over the on-stage three-piece combo—serving as the piano accompanist working in conjunction with those on drums and electric bass.)
Comprised of a series of non-linear vignettes and largely sung-through, the songs featured were culled from material Brown had originally written that was intended for other venues or productions. The composer has observed that it is “neither a musical play nor revue”; instead, he refers to it rather as “a very theatrical song cycle”. Spotlighting four performers who don’t play the same characters throughout, “Songs For A New World” could practically define the idea of an “abstract contemporary musical”–regardless of where and when it’s set, and is expressed (and progressed) through a series of songs that are all connected by the theme: “the moment of decision.” Introducing some truly first-rate story songs, Brown’s descants are, at first glance, quick and clever—but also contain a surprising (or better put, “unexpected’) depth and poignancy.
The four-person cast includes Kenny Gary as “Man 1”, Bailey Humiston as “Woman 1”, Matt Mancuso as “Man 2” and Teresa Tracy as “Woman 2”. They combine to make an equally matched (if enigmatically monikered) quartet of strong, emotive voices that compliment and contrast each other delightfully; but perhaps the really exceptional thing about this particular production (and makes it so worth recommending) is how each individual singer is so winningly suited for the type of songs they’re enlisted to sing. “A new world calls across the ocean, a new world calls across the sky; a new world whispers in the shadows: Time to fly, time to fly”, they bid us in the opening, which itself contains some brilliant four-part harmonizing. Likewise, during “The River Won’t Flow” they once again come together to create an incredible four-fold wall of sound and melody, then still again in the finale big group endeavor, “Hear My Song” that concludes the show.
Kenny Gary as “Man 1” has a stirring, soulful vibrato and intuitive phrasing that makes each of his numbers instant standouts, as evidenced by his energetic handling of “King Of The World”. Moreover, his part leading the show’s climatic 11 O’clock number “Flying Home” (which quickly swells into yet another dynamic ensemble effort as well) is nothing short of awesome. The first segment, titled “On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” is fashioned as a prayer for safety and deliverance through uncertainty placing us (metaphorically) on to the deck of one of Columbus’s vessels as it’s on the brink of discovering the New World. “Lord, we take this journey to find a promised land—and we believe in your power, but the end is so close at hand” Gary sings (as “Man 1” in the supposed guise of a ship’s officer.) Then again they’re all—in each episode presented–looking to find some kind of ‘promised land’ whether physical, spiritual or emotional. Gary again takes the lead in the Act One closer, “Steam Train”, recalling all the hip, jivey elements of Duke Ellington, Count Basie or the “Cotton Club” circa 1933, as he boasts “You Don’t Know Me—but you will!” Here again he gets the chance to show off his spirited, uplifting voice and flair for rendering some fairly ‘fascinating rhythms’ with it!
Joining him is Baily Humiston as “Woman 1”. In addition to her fine contributions to the titular opening, “Songs For A New World”, she soon follows up with some equally laudable work during “I’m Not Afraid Of Anything”. On the face of it, the number details a mother’s musings on the fears experienced by her children and others she loves, stating that while she understands them, she personally has never been burdened with anything as trivial as fear or apprehension–until one gets the distinct impression that this may be because deep down, she won’t risk letting anyone in (“I’m not afraid of anyone! Not a soul alive can get behind this wall. So let them call–and watch them fall,” she croons softly.) Subsequently, her post-intermission “Christmas Lullaby” has her as an expectant mother singing to her soon-to-be-born child, and is a genuine highlight of the show!
Matt Mancuso as “Man 2” also shines with some ‘million-dollar’ ‘money’ notes, bestowing a venerable potency to both his execution and interpretation of such songs as “She Cries” and “I’d Give It All For You” (which is also a dynamite duet with Ms. Humiston—and a Bona Fide triumph for both, in which the two play lovers who at last realize how precious and rare their feelings for one another are after a period apart!) He also opens Act Two with the clever and bittersweet “The World Was Dancing”, which especially suits Mr. Mancuso’s vocal talents like a musical glove! The number relates the story of a young college student (Mancuso) whose ‘fancy turns to thoughts of love’ during times of hardship—although also quickly reminds us that “dreams get burned down overnight”.
As “Woman 2”, Teresa Tracy carries much of the comedy as when she portrays a rabidly materialistic society matron who ventures out on the ledge outside her luxury penthouse on the 57th floor, because her husband “Murray” won’t buy her a new fur-coat; or singing a pseudo-romantic lieder to none other than jolly old “Saint Nick” himself called “Surabaya-Santa” (written as a parody of Kurt Weill’s similarly themed “Surabaya Jonny”.) Conveyed in a Teutonic torch-song style that would be worthy of “Marlene Dietrich” in “The Blue Angel” or “Cabaret’s” “Sally Bowles”, by the tune’s end she practically screams defiantly, “I will escape your ‘Santa Claws’! However, there are moments when Tracy offers some profounder reflections and she certainly rises to the occasion, as with “Stars And Moon”, giving us a world-weary woman who recalls too late, that her single-minded quest for ‘the good life” (and the wealthy husband she chose—in the process forsaking two others who seemingly could only promise her more modest, contentments,) has never provided her with the truer, intangible treasures her soul actually craved. Then, late in the second act, she surprises us again with the heart-wrenching “”Flag-maker, 1775” wherein she’s a mother of a soldier fighting in the Revolutionary War. (“The wise woman does what she knows,” she intones; “if it’s fighting she fights; if it’s sewing, she sews.”) Throughout, she stitches a flag that one soon realizes just may be to drape over her son’s coffin.
Esposito’s direction is nicely fluid and imaginative, and while there are moments of movement within various songs, there’s no real formal ‘choreography’ to speak of. This is more about songs and thoughts–and the affectivity each together can inspire or ignite. Shen Heckel’s Scenic Design is neat, functional and pleasantly ‘au courant’. Indeed, Heckel’s set—a neat and stylish cocktail lounge stands in for other, more existential, locales—some of them historically significant–that transcend space and time. According to Esposito, this setting was chosen as it was a logical everyday kind of place where these characters would naturally mix and mingle. This is richly complimented by Richard Fong’s often colorful lighting design, while the costumes by Ovation Award-winning designer, Michael Mullen shrewdly borrow from several recent era’s—from 1960’s “fab” to 1930’s “slick”.
“Listen to the songs that they sing—listen to the hope that they bring!” Here is a subtle but substantial entertainment loaded with sharp, savvy sentiments and enlivened by a tremendously talented troupe. So catch this marvelous musical ‘Steam Train comin’ down the track’—it’s right now at “The Chromolume Theatre” located at “The Attic” theatrical-complex, 5429 W. Washington Boulevard in Los Angeles, California. Having opened on Friday, September 9th, “Songs For A New World” is slated to run through Sunday, October 2nd , 2016; Show-times are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 PM with Sunday evening performances at 7:00 PM. More information and tickets may be obtained online by visiting www.crtheatre.com or via telephone by calling (323) 205-1617.
Production Stills By James Esposito, Courtesy of Sandra Kuker At “Sandra Kuker PR” And “The Chromolume Theatre”; Special Thanks To James Esposito, Sandra Kuker, Lauren Peters And To The Cast & Crew Of “The Chromolume Theatre’s” 2016 Production Of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs For A New World” For Making This Story Possible.